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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2428

Coup attempt that nearly ignited a religious war

Janaka Perera

Lest we forget January 27 marked an important mile stone in Sri Lanka's national revival campaign that continued after February 4, 1948. It was the crushing in 1962 of the military and police officers coup. In its wake was born the Bauddha Jaathika Balavegaya or the BJB (Buddhist National Force) led by L.H. Mettananda.

The coup was an eye-opener to the island's Buddhist majority which realized that a non-Buddhist minority still wielded real power in the country, even though the British had left our shores 14 years before after doing everything possible to undermine the Buddha Sasana and Buddhist culture for during their 133-year colonial rule.

The abortive coup of 1962 was the first ever attempt to overthrow a legally elected government in post- independence Sri Lanka. The conspirators were a group of military and police officers that belonged to a generation, which was virtually alienated from Sri Lanka's history, traditions and national sentiments. Their objective was to turn the political clock back to the immediate post independence years.

The defence establishment then was a far cry from what it is today. It was largely a ceremonial outfit and the Army had only one Major General. The culturally-uprooted armed forces had no links to this country's pre-colonial era unlike in neighbouring India which has a strong unbroken military tradition – warrior tribes represented today in the form of Sikh, Rajput, Maratha and other Regiments.

Almost all the top rankers in Sri Lanka's police and armed forces were belonged to a Westernized elite upper class – most of them Christians. A direct result of European colonial rule, they were largely an aberration for a predominantly Asian Buddhist country like Sri Lanka. Not surprisingly therefore the conspirators failed to comprehend the complex and sometimes controversial socio-political changes that were sweeping not only Sri Lanka but also the rest of post-colonial Asia in the decades that followed the end of World War II. More than anything else nationalists in the continent were giving vent to centuries of frustration and anger under European religious and cultural domination.

Consequently the coup leaders of 1962 and their mentors mistook the post-`56 socio-economic transformations and the establishment of diplomatic ties with Soviet Russia and China as a possible shift to communism. In the words of veteran journalist D.B. Dhanapala "The sizzling of the diehards carrying the white man's burden by proxy could be heard echoing through the infuriated press." (Among Those Present).

It was left to Felix Dias Bandaranaike - who himself grew up in a Westernised Christian environment - to abort the coup that would have probably turned this country into a Latin American style-banana republic or perhaps like the now-defunct Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) under the reactionary anti-Buddhist Dictator Ngo Din Diem.

Aborting the coup was one of the most significant contributions that F.D. Bandaranaike made to the country at a time when SLFP's egalitarian politics threatened the interests of his own class. He got wind of the plot - planned for the midnight of January 27, 1962 - through leading educationist, Buddhist activist and first SLFP Secretary P.de S. Kularatne who in turn was tipped off by his daughter Maya and her husband Stanley Senanayake then SP Colombo. The latter was among those who refused to join the plot. Kularatne was playing bridge with the then IGP M.W.F Abeykoon at the Orient Club, Colombo, when the news reached him on Saturday, Jan. 27th around 5.15 p.m.

The plotters were living in the clouds. They failed to realize that at the time they planned to stage the coup the Sirima Bandaranaike Government was still popular as shown in several by-election results. The conspirators had initially planned to execute several government members. But a coup leader, DIG Range I, C.C. (Jungle) Dissanayake, had warned the others not to resort to any killings.

Dissanayake was arrested in his house soon after the midnight. Altogether 30 conspirators were arrested including former Navy Commander Royce de Mel former DIG Sydney de Zoysa, L.C.S. Jirasinghe, Commandant Volunteer Force Col. Maurice de Mel, Commanding Officer, Volunteer Signals Lt. Co. B.R. Jesudasan, Majors B.I. Loyala and W.G. White both of the 3rd Field Artillery Regiment, Major L.P.Joseph of the Armoured Corps, Commanding Officer, Volunteer Engineers Lt. Col. J.H.V. de Alwis, Staff Officer Ceylon Volunteer Force Headquarters Capt. J.A.R. Felix, SP (West) V.E. Perera, Deputy Director, Land Development J.F.D. Liyanage, PA to DIG Range I ASP T.V. Wijesinghe, Commanding Officer, Ceylon Electrical and Mechanical Engineers Lt. Col. Noel Mathyesz and Captains D.E. Weerasinghe and A.J.B. Anghie and N.S. Jayakody all of the 3rd Field Regiment.

But the Air Force - then under the command of a European – had no connection with the coup d' etat.

By strange coincidence, January 27 was the day on which Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike was to be at Kataragama. Planning of the coup had gone on for quite a sometime. Colonels Maurice de Mel and F.C. de Saram were in charge of the Army arrangements for the coup, while DIGs Sidney de Soysa and C.C. Dissanayake were in charge of police arrangements. Former Navy Commander Rear Admiral Royce de Mel was associated in the detailed planning of the coup. Sidney Soysa was to coordinate army and police operations.

Government ministers, the Permanent Secretary for Defence and External affairs, the Inspector General of Police, DIG (CID), SP (CID) and the acting Navy Commander were among those to be arrested. Other service commanders including the Army Commander were to be restrained and prevented from leaving their houses that night after a certain hour.

Soon after midnight police cars equipped with loud hailers were to be sent out to announce an immediate curfew in Colombo city limits. The Central Telegraph Office, Colombo and other city telephone exchanges were to be put out of action. Newspaper office buildings, Police Headquarters, the CID office and other key points were to be taken over. Armoured cars were to be stationed at certain points to ensure the success of the operation. Troops from Panagoda were to be prevented from reaching Colombo that night at any cost.

Army vehicles fitted with radio transmitting and receiving equipment, were to be stationed at the two Kelani bridges, the Kirillapone Bridge and other places. Armed police motorcyclists were to be at Torrington (Independence) Square from about 11 p.m. that night. A special direct telephone line had been laid the previous day, from Lower Lake Road to Echelon Square, for use by army personnel. Armoured cars at the PM's official residence, 'Temple Trees,' were to be withdrawn.

If the coup had succeeded even for 24 hours - observes retired Police Superintendent F.N.D. Jilla - the rank and file (roused by political forces opposed to the coup) would have turned their guns not only on the coup leaders but also on all other non-Buddhist officers.

Continues Jilla: "With the army, navy and police leaderless, a religious war would begin between Buddhists and non-Buddhists and the massacres would be so terrible that the Sinhala-Tamil disturbances we had gone through in 1956 and 1958 would look like child's play." (Without Fear or Favor)

Yet, to the anti-national English press at the time the major issue was not the proven attempt to overthrow a legitimately elected government but the discomfort and alleged harassment that the accused experienced in jail. My unforgettable and most disgusting experience as a school going teenager at the time was the pathetic mental level (then as now) of some pro-UNP Sinhala Buddhists - merely because they were opposed to the SLFP Government - expressed support to the jailed conspirators. It was alleged that the Opposition UNP was aware of the conspiracy being hatched, though the party played no role in it.

This is reminiscent of some of today's NGO 'peaceniks' and 'human rights' crusaders screaming from the roof tops when LTTE suspects are detained and interrogated but maintain deafening silence when Tigers go on their bloody rampages.

The so-called watchdogs of democracy conveniently ignored the fact that the plotters had drawn up plans to imprison government members and leftist leaders among others in the Army Headquarters Ammunition Magazine, which is a reinforced concrete structure, partially underground.

Although the Sri Lankan Courts convicted the conspirators they succeeded in getting acquitted on a technical point upon appeal to the Privy Council in UK under the law that prevailed in Sri Lanka at the time. It would have been a far different story if Sri Lanka – like neighbouring India - had become a republic soon after 1948.

While the plotters represented only a minority in the defence establishment many of them nevertheless bitterly regretted their action and one army officer committed suicide as a result.

The coup followed radical changes in the armed forces, which until then did not reflect Sri Lanka's true ethnic composition. The changes were initiated under the direction of the then Permanent Secretary for Defence and External Affairs, N.Q. Dias. And for the first time since independence a Sinhala Buddhist, Major General Richard Udugama, became the Army Commander. He was a World War II veteran who had seen action on the Burma Front.

As a result more and more past pupils from Buddhist schools like Ananda and Nalanda had the opportunity to join the armed forces the higher ranks of which were hitherto restricted mostly to old boys from Chrisitian schools like S.Thomas and Trinity. Buddhist societies within the armed forces were able to operate without obstruction.

- Asian Tribune -

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